What matters is the product, and how it connects with fans.
The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.
This animated version of a Frank Zappa interview made the rounds a month or two ago. The first thing to do is to watch it, if you haven’t done so. Be warned, there’s some PG-13 language used.
The whole thing shows just how smart this guy was, and how he understood exactly what we’re actually trying to do in this craft. As such, I want to dig into a number of points and expand them as I have come to understand them.
Not In The Band Anymore
Mr. Zappa opens up by going straight into a really tough point: Why would someone not be in your band anymore? In this case, two reasons are laid out. The first reason is that a player (or, if I dare to synthesize a bit, a crewmember) can’t handle the job. The second possible reason is that a better opportunity came along.
I’ve had the good fortune to come across only a few bands that desperately needed to fire somebody. In the cases where a firing was needed, the situation was often that, despite the need, nobody was getting dismissed. In general, the lack of movement came from the other band members believing that the definition of “good enough” was mostly about a player’s technical ability. I’ve written before about how this isn’t a sufficiently wide-ranging view. There are plenty of musicians and techies with incredible “chops” who are also terrible at being in a band with actual, other people. Maybe they play too loud. Maybe they can’t stop playing, even when it’s some other player’s turn. Maybe they’re just a pain to be around. In any of those cases, the person in question isn’t good enough to be in the band – being part of the group is a necessary skill, and at least as important as being able to play every possible variation of a G-major chord.
The second bit might seem to be more obvious, but I think there’s some hidden meaning within it. Is your band good enough that it produces people who other bands want to hire? Think about that as an aspiration: That your group not only seeks out, but also creates musicians and crew members who become sought after. That’s the mark of a brilliant organization, an organization that improves a music scene just by being there. The very best bands don’t just play killer tunes, but are also economically and organizationally structured for people to do their best work.
The Spirit Of Accomplishment
This connects with the previous sentence. The very best bands, the ones that are platforms for people to do their best work, produce a sense of pride in the group. When the players and crew are giddy with the excitement of standing up and saying, “Check out what WE did,” then you know you’re on the right track. This kind of pride becomes infectious, and beckons others to join in. That’s why Frank could claim that there was no shortage of people willing to put themselves through the rigor of being in his group. The discipline required to execute at the “varsity” level is a natural necessity and not an arbitrary imposition, and good people will readily volunteer for it.
The flipside is that, if truly respected players and techs don’t have much desire to be subjected to the discipline of your organization, you may not actually be varsity level. That might sound a bit harsh, but the good news is that you can start correcting a problem once you’re aware of it.
Let’s keep going with that “varsity level” metaphor.
Can your band play and sound like itself without top-shelf monitors? Can your band play, even if FOH isn’t being handled well?
Do you have a backup plan if a piece of gear dies?
Can you pull a coherent acoustic set out of your buttocks, if all else fails?
Does your crew have a contingency for getting through the gig, even if a major piece of gear vomits all over itself? Do they have, somewhere in their minds, the ability to downgrade all the way to a vocals and/ or priority-instruments only mix? Can they do it without thinking about it for more than a few minutes?
If not, it’s time to do some thinking. There’s no shame in not being at this level immediately. Shoot for it, though.
Some productions can function as full democracies. Some can work as partial democracies. Some require an out-and-out monarch. No matter what, though, all shows require that there be a singular someone where the buck stops. THE point of contact. The person (or entity) that “signs the checks.”
You might think that being the point-person means that your primary duty is to give as many instructions as possible. This is incorrect. In a band that enables disciplined people to do their best work, the leader barely has to give instructions at all. The job of the king is to make the big-picture decisions while ensuring the well-being of the folks who are led. If the group is actually a well-honed production unit, then people will know their jobs and do them without being continuously prodded.
The check-writer certainly has authority. The check-writer certainly does give orders. The check-writer certainly does hire and fire. All these things do not exist for themselves, however. These natural authorities are in place so that the check-writer/ dictator/ king/ chief/ grand poo-bah can create an environment where as many people as is practicable are able to execute their craft at the highest level that is possible. If those authorities are used for some other purpose, such as the growth of an individual’s ego and power-mania, then a person’s exit from the group is both justified and praiseworthy.
(In the case of Frank Zappa, I’d be willing to bet that he used his authority properly. Some folks just can’t handle the idea of someone else being in charge, though, and they will “select out” no matter how good the band is.)
The apex of all this is to provide a product. In the case of a concert, the product is an integrated experience that takes the audience on a ride that they couldn’t otherwise go on. The experience is a union of parts that creates a gestalt greater than those parts. The better the gestalt experience, the more that product connects with an audience’s emotions, the more in-demand (and well paid) the band is likely to be.
That concept of “wholeness” is very important. Wholeness comes from supporting an impeccable foundation. Performances that ultimately fill venues are not, in any way, about just sticking a bunch of improved “production blocks” together. Some groups, for instance, end up chasing after a bunch of lighting or audio gear in the belief that snappier “technicals” will win a bigger crowd. This is not the case, however, because just making something flashier does not mean that the core, emotional ride is one that the public wants to go on.
The ride starts with the basics of the song.
A better arrangement gives the song more engaging sonic textures and pathways.
Better audio production translates the first two elements into the audience more readily.
Better lighting acknowledges and accents the journey of the song.
Better staging makes all the previous elements work more smoothly and naturally.
If the core isn’t all that great, though, then plugging in a giant lighting system and a PA that can call elephants from halfway around the world isn’t going to do squat.
There is a blues, funk, soul, and rock-n-roll band from around these parts that came through my former gig for about five years. When I started working with them, we had minimal lighting. Because of issues with stage acoustics, we basically ran without subwoofers. Do you know how many people complained about those things? Zero, that I can remember. Also, the gigs with less production? They were just as full as the later, better-produced shows. People appreciated what was added on, but they wouldn’t have cared if the fundamental experience had been lackluster.
Somewhere near you, tonight, a big-production gig with all kinds of flash and flair will be less than half-full. A few miles away, a singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar, a couple of small speakers on sticks, and no lighting to speak of will have a line around the block. There are all kinds of reasons that might be the case, but consider that all the gear money could buy didn’t guarantee a capacity crowd for show #1.
…and this pulls us all the way back around to the start. Musicians and crew who are not making the holistic product better, for whatever reason, need to go somewhere else. The cliche of the fans being what matters is around for a reason. The fans are who ultimately enable the writing of checks. If some member of the group is fixated on some aspect of the production that is dragging down the gestalt experience for the fans, then that group member needs to be corrected. If they can’t be corrected, it’s time for them to find some other group. No matter how much they know, or how much they can do, they aren’t good enough to be in the band.